The novel is a collection of free-verse poems, making it a unique entry in the world of Children's Literature. The plot deals with its protagonist Billie Jo Kelby, a tomboyish, talented pianist, struggling to survive in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during The Great Depression. She has a kind mother, nicknamed Ma, who dies tragically, and a distant father, nicknamed Daddy. As the novel progresses, Billie Jo and Daddy learn to endure their tough existences, as well as the hole in their lives created by the death of Ma.
This novel contains examples of:
- Body Horror:
- Happens to Ma after Billie Jo accidentally douses her in kerosene. She dies shortly after.
- It also happens to Billie herself, as her hands become crippled due to third-degree burns.
- Character Development: Both Billie Jo and Daddy. Billie becomes a much stronger young woman, with a sense of purpose (i.e., her piano playing) by the book's end, and she forgives her father for the freak accident. Daddy is not nearly as stoic by the end of the novel; he also gets a girlfriend, Louise.
- Crapsack World: Well, it is The Great Depression...
- Death by Childbirth: Ma. The baby doesn't survive for very long either.
- Death by Despair: Referenced. Billie Jo mentions that a woman died two hours after her husband. It was officially of dust pneumonia but Billie believes that she just couldn't go on without her husband.
- Death by Newbery Medal: Poor, poor Ma. Franklin too. Daddy also got very close to dying from skin cancer had it not been for Billie Jo returning home when she did.
- Death of a Child:
- Billie's brother Franklin dies a few hours after being born.
- It's mentioned that two boys were killed in a bad dust storm.
- Deceased Parents Are the Best: Billie Jo has a supportive and kind mother and an emotionally distant (though not terrible) father. Guess which parent dies.
- Dream-Crushing Handicap: Subverted; at first, it seems like this trope'll be played straight when Billie's hands are crippled in the freak accident, making it much tougher for her to play piano. However, local musician and good friend Arley Wanderdale tries to convince her to perform in a city-wide Talent Contest anyway, and she does, winning second-place. By the end of the novel, she's playing piano on the regular again.
- Drowning His Sorrows: After Ma gets disfigured in the kerosene accident, Bayard does this in a nearby town called Guymon to forget his life's problems. Billie isn't happy about it, although she forgives him for it fairly quickly (at least, much quicker than for causing the freak accident).
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Well, not really a happy ending - it is The Great Depression, after all. But after a bookload of suffering, the surviving characters are much happier by the end than at any other point in the entire novel, especially Daddy.
- Escapism: In-universe, Billie Jo plays the piano as a way to escape her brutal, unforgiving life.
- For Want of a Nail: If that pot of kerosene wasn't in the wrong place at the wrong time, a lot of drama and heartache could've been avoided.
- From Bad to Worse: Things weren't so great at the beginning of the story, but once Ma dies giving birth to Franklin, that's when things really start rolling off the deep end.
- Frothy Mugs of Water: Averted. Being set in the 1930s, it couldn't lack a reference to moonshine. It also features Billie Jo's dad going out drinking after the accident.
- The Great Depression: The novel takes place smack dab in the middle of this period, from 1934 to 1935.
- Good Parents: Ma. She dies, of course.
- Hunk: Daddy; Billie Jo remarks on his good looks a few times. It's implied to be the reason why Louise fell for him.
- I Coulda Been a Contender!: Ma could have been a famous pianist. At least Billie thought so.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: Daddy takes the stash of emergency money and spends it at a bar in Guymon until he's drunk enough to forget about his wife's horrific accident.
- Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Billie is a very downplayed example, but she does overcome her crippled hands to play piano, despite everyone's, including her father's, doubts.
- Intergenerational Friendship: Arley and Billie Jo. At the end, Louise, as well.
- The Mentor: Arley Wanderdale, who's more of a father figure to Billie than Bayard, her actual dad.
- Mercy Kill: A minor character has his cattle shot instead of letting them starve or suffocate due to the dust.
- Missing Mom: Billie's biological mother dies a few chapters in. She gets a step-mom near the end though.
- Most Writers Are Writers: Karen Hesse has gone on record to say Billie is a musician and a poet because she too is a musician and a poet.
- Not So Stoic: When Billie Jo and Daddy go to a town ball, he actually smiles and laughs. Billie is noticeably shocked. (Not in a bad way, of course.)
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Mad Dog received his nickname because as a toddler he loved to bite people's legs. His real name is never mentioned and not even Billie Jo knows it.
- Parental Title Characterization: Billie Jo switches from "daddy" to "father" after she loses faith in her father. After they rekindle their bond she switches back.
- Political Correctness Gone Mad: In-universe, one of the Talent Contest contestants, Birdie Jasper, thinks this is going on when Billie gets a prize, claiming the judges are "just being nice to a cripple." The other performers disagree.
- Poor Communication Kills: Daddy leaves a pail filled with kerosene on the stove without telling Ma what it is. She mistakes it for water and tries to use it to make coffee, resulting in a massive fire that ends with her fatally burning herself and her unborn baby.
- Second Place Is for Losers: Subverted. Billie Jo is proud of herself when she wins third-place in the Talent Contest.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Way on the cynical side, even though the ending is surprisingly upbeat and hopeful.
- Sliding Scale of Realistic vs. Fantastic: As realistic as humanly possible, though it's to be expected, considering it's basically the kiddie equivalent of a Steinbeck novel.
- So Proud of You: Downplayed when Billie tells Ma she scored the highest out of the entire eighth grade on a standardized test.Ma: I knew you could.
- The Stoic: Bayard Kelby, mostly after Ma and Franklin's deaths as a defense mechanism. He gets better.
- Strong Family Resemblance: Used tragically. Billie Jo resembles her father in both looks and mannerisms but is very little like her mother. After her mother's death, she bemoans that she wish she could see more of her mother in herself.
- Talent Contest: Billie enters one about halfway through the book; she wins second-place and earns two dollars.
- This Is Unforgivable!: One of the main conflicts in the novel is Billie Jo refusing to forgive her father for leaving the pot of kerosene on the stove, as it lead to the chain of events ending in Ma's death. By the end, she has forgave him - as well as herself, for throwing the pot.
- Teacher/Student Romance: A rare example between adults. After Billie Jo's father begins going to night school, he ends up falling for his teacher Louise.
- The Runaway: Billie runs off westward but returns back home a chapter later after meeting a man who ran away from his family.
- Title Drop: An interesting variation, in that the Title Drop is repeated numerous times across the novel as sort of a literary leitmotif, rather than just said once or twice.
- Tomboy: Billie Jo herself, though considering her father wanted a boy to begin with, it's not that surprising.
- Tomboyish Name: Again, Billie Jo.
- Trademark Favorite Food: Billie's love of apples is noted several times. The book even includes a recipe for apple sauce in the afterword.
- Unnamed Parent: Averted with Billie Jo's father, whose name is revealed to be "Bayard". Also averted with her mother, who is referred to once as "Polly" (and "Pol" twice by her husband).
- Wanted a Son Instead: Billie Jo's dad wanted a son. As a result, he gave his daughter a Tomboyish Name and raised her similarly to a son.
- Wham Line:
I got burned bad.
- From the chapter "The Accident":
Ma died that day giving birth to my brother.
- From the chapter "Devoured":
She came to bring my brother back to Lubbock to raise as her own, but my brother died before Aunt Ellis got here.
- From the chapter "Blame":
He is rotting away, like my father, ready to leave me behind in the dust. Well, I'm leaving first.
- From the chapter "Midnight Truth":
I called Mr. Hardly from her office and asked him to let my father know... I was coming home.
- From the chapter "Something Lost, Something Gained":
Her name is Louise, she stayed by Daddy the days I was away.
- From the chapter "The Other Woman":
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Billie repeatedly tries to make her mom and dad proud of her over the course of the book. She doesn't really succeed with her mom, but does with her dad when she returns home from her train ride out of Oklahoma.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Billie reacts this way when her dad drinks up all the emergency money in Guymon.
- Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Billie Jo's father wanted a boy, not a girl, which is why he gave her a masculine name and forced her to work on the farm.
- You Got Spunk: When Billie returns from her short trip out the Panhandle, Bayard says this almost verbatim.Daddy: I didn't have half your sauce, Billie Jo.